The Journal Register (Medina, NY)

May 1, 2013

Vietnam vets welcome 'biggest cheerleader'

By HOWARD BALABAN
Medina Journal-Register

Medina Journal-Register — Military servicemen and women who return from overseas today are greeted with cheers and warm thank yous by welcoming crowds.

When the vast majority of military personnel in Vietnam returned home in 1972, they did not receive quite the same greeting. Only in recent years have they begun to be seen on the street and extended such gratitude.

One person who thanked them in public while the conflict persisted was journalist Nancy Lynch, who worked for a newspaper in Wilmington, Del. at the time. Lynch visited Medina’s Lee-Whedon Memorial Library Monday night to talk about her book “Vietnam Mailbag, Voices From the War: 1968-1972.”

“My job was to be a cheerleader,” Lynch recalled. Her editor at the Wilmington Morning News spoke with her and she agreed to start writing letters to that publication’s local troops stationed in Vietnam.

She chuckled as she recalled, “I was young and single, and the thought of 800 new pen-pals sounded good to me.”

Lynch said she was ready to give up on her assignment after three weeks with nary a reply. Then, the first letter arrived.

“I just looked at it. I couldn’t bring myself to open it,” she said. “The next day 10 more came, then 15, and so on.”

Lynch published her first column featuring letters from soldiers on May 20, 1968. The letters continued until December of 1972. At the time, she promised “my guys” that she would one day put a book together featuring the letters and pictures she received, and she received over 1,000.

“This book is strictly meant to honor the veterans,” she said.

A group of local veterans attended Monday’s visit. Among them were Dave Swierczak, Jim Freas, Joe Franklin, Fred Heschke, and a few others. After her presentation, Swierczak presented Lynch with a Vietnam doll and a rice paddy hat worn by the country’s field workers.

He said her work made him a bit jealous that soldiers from this neck of the woods did not have their own “cheerleader” in print, but he also said Jerry Botsford made an effort to send copies of the the Journal-Register to him and his comrades. He said reading the news from home kept soldiers connected in a way that was tough to describe.

The letters that soldiers received are vital to keeping spirits up, he said.

“When you’re in the field and you’re living day by day, minute by minute, and you get letters from people you don’t know and they’re concerned about your well-being, that means a great deal to the G.I.s. It’s a great way to boost morale,” said Swierczak, who served in the Air Force.

Army veteran Franklin agreed. “Mail is sometimes the most important thing in the field; you can’t wait to get a letter.”

Freas, a Marine vet, and Heschke, a Navy man, echoed their fellow servicemen. Freas noted, “A letter sometimes was more important than a package. Everybody lived for mail call.”

With the changes to how veterans have been treated over the years (Freas joked, “I was a Vietnam veteran before it was fashionable.”) the men agreed that it was heartwarming to see the response today’s military gets when it leaves and when it returns.

Franklin, who flew a helicopter “during the worst” of Vietnam in his 1968 tour of duty, said he and his fellow vets did not receive such warm welcomes home. But, he said, he was of the opinion that protecting the freedoms to speak one’s mind was pretty important.

“My country wanted me to go,” he stated. He said his opinion on the reason for him to go halfway across the globe did not matter. 

Having the veterans in the audience left Lynch touched with thanks.

“They’re the real deal,” she said, adding how she will continue to do everything within her power to help them out by increasing awareness of what they did and the sacrifices they made.

And while Lynch agreed today’s military is treated much more honorably than its Vietnam brethren were, she noted a stark contrast: accounting.

“Now everything is electronic,” she said. “People don’t write the way they used to, and that’s my real fear - that there won’t be any social history from today’s wars.”

Indeed, the digital age has changed the way soldiers communicate to their loved ones at home. Yet Monday night’s visit with Lynch proved how vital it is to have that communication.